How much does a goal cost in MLS? In 2012, teams spent an average of $130,477.85 per goal, calculated simply by dividing each team’s total guaranteed compensation by the number of goals they knocked in.
Here’s how that looks for each team, ordered by number of playoff wins, then by total points:
Table 1: All-League Totals
It’s interesting to note off the bat that although playoff teams spend about $700K more on total salary than the league average and nearly $1.5M more than non-playoff teams, playoff team’s goals came about $6K cheaper than non-playoff teams. There are two reasons for this: first, playoff teams scored 12 more goals on average than non-playoff teams (as I discussed in greater detail in the last edition of this series); in other words, they get greater production out of their roster. But production is only one half of the equation; efficiency seems to be just as crucial. Getting your money’s worth means both big numbers and numbers from the right players.
The other interesting thing to note about the numbers in Table 1 is that the three teams with the highest overall salaries are spread across the table: Los Angeles Galaxy are at the top, having won the MLS cup in 2012; New York Red Bulls sit 6th, having qualified for the playoffs but not won any of their matches: Toronto FC are, well, dead last by every possible count. In other words, just spending big money doesn’t get the job done. In fact, the three overall lowest salary budgets belong to playoff qualifying teams, including Supporters Shield winners San Jose Earthquakes ($3,522,649), MLS Cup runners-up Houston Dynamo ($3,582,841), and Sporting Kansas City (the lowest at $3,343,372).
To get a better look at salary productivity and efficiency, let’s set aside LA, New York, and Toronto, which skew the table toward productivity (or lack thereof north of the border) and hide some of the efficiency numbers.
Here’s a look at the total numbers:
Table 2: League Totals (excluding LA, NY, and TFC)
And here they are by position:
Table 3: Positional Breakdowns
Looking at the overall numbers, playoff teams spent $25K less per goal than non-playoff teams and about $240K less on salaries of goalscorers. Efficiency and productivity are on full display.
Looking at the positional breakdown makes this clearer, but adds a twist that is most visible at the forward position. Playoff teams spent about $192K less on goalscoring forward salaries; they also had 1.38 fewer goalscoring forwards on average than non-playoff teams. Looking up again at Table 2, we see that the average salary for a goalscoring player is $194K; thus, playoff teams spent about one goalscoring player’s salary less on their forwards, but had more than one fewer goalscorer. This means a few things: first of all, that playoff teams’ goalscorers are making a little more on average than those on non-playoff teams. However, they are vastly more productive and, therefore, much more efficient. Despite having overall higher per-player costs, playoff teams still got goals from their forwards for about $28K less per goal than non-playoff teams. The effect holds true to a slightly lesser degree for midfielders and then becomes less predictable for defenders.
Where do the Fire fit into all of this? To make this easier to assess, here are Chicago’s numbers compared to the league and playoff-team averages (still excluding LA, NY, and TFC).
Table 4: Chicago Fire totals vs. League and Playoff Averages
Table 5: Chicago Fire positional breakdown vs. League and Playoff Averages
Generally, the Fire’s numbers are nestled between the league-wide and playoff team averages. This isn’t particularly surprising based on the team’s performance and ultimate finish. Perhaps most notable are the forwards’ numbers. The Fire’s attacking corps scored 3.94 fewer goals than the league average and 8.63 less than the average of playoff qualifiers. Their goals still cost less than the league average, but more than the playoff average; in fact, we might guess that they only beat the league average because of their lower goal total rather than any kind of superior efficiency. Their midfield was more productive than both the league and playoff averages, but was generally less efficient in terms of cost per goal from this position.
What should we take away from this analysis? What might it tell us about the Fire’s 2013 struggles, or what it takes in general to be successful in MLS? Based on these salary numbers, the key seems to be both production and efficiency; in other words, more goals from fewer players. This requires smart salary management in a league where (most) teams can only spend a limited amount of money. Spending $527,525 on MacDonald for zero goals in 2013 is a complete disaster in this regard. It requires consistency among starters and their performances (this may also point to the importance of rollover minutes in year-to-year performance, as Tweed has written about on this site here and here).
Houston and Kansas City stand out as teams who have built incredibly efficient squads, through intelligent front office management, good player moves, and experienced MLS coaches (as much as we might not like them). However, I have to wonder how long this model will last. New York and Toronto have proven that you cannot simply buy MLS success, but early observations of the 2013 season indicate that smart increases in spending can yield large dividends, especially for teams like Montreal, Portland, and Philadelphia. With New York City FC projected to come into the league spending like mad in 2015, I expect salaries will continue to expand and smaller budget teams will have to follow along. Nonetheless, as long as a salary cap remains in place, spending smart to increase efficiency will always have a chance in edging out big spending that is more focused exclusively on production.